Over the past decades, the modernization of agriculture in the Western world has contributed not only to a rapid increase in food production but also to environmental and societal concerns over issues such as greenhouse gas emissions, soil quality and biodiversity loss. Many of these concerns, for example those related to animal welfare or labor conditions, are stuck in controversies and apparently deadlocked debates. As a result we observe a paradox in which a wide range of corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives, originally seeking to reconnect agriculture and society, frequently provoke debate, conflict, and protests. In order to make sense of this pattern, the present paper contends that Western agriculture is marked by moral complexity, i.e., the tendency of multiple legitimate moral standpoints to proliferate without the realistic prospect of a consensus. This contention is buttressed by a conceptual framework that draws inspiration the contemporary business ethics and systems-theoretic scholarship. From the systems-theoretic point of view, the evolution of moral complexity is traced back to the processes of agricultural modernization, specialization, and differentiation, each of which suppresses the responsiveness of the economic and legal institutions to the full range of societal and environmental concerns about agriculture. From the business ethics point of view, moral complexity is shown to prevent the transformation of the ethical responsibilities into the legal and economic responsibilities despite the ongoing institutionalization of CSR. Navigating moral complexity is shown to require moral judgments which are necessarily personal and contestable. These judgments are implicated in those CSR initiatives that require dealing with trade-offs among the different sustainability issues.
- Corporate social responsibility
- Moral complexity
- Systems theory